New York City's current over-hyped musical economy is one based largely on immigrants. Immigrants from Kansas and Carolina, Pittsburgh and Pennsyltucky, donning the big belts and black shags of big-city dreams and toting their New York rock 'n' roll around like the overzealous newcomers they mostly are. But underneath New York City -- literally, in the case of Lower East Side reggae Mecca Jammyland and the since-gone sewer studio Version City -- a different kind of immigrant assimilation has been making truly, potently New York City music for over a decade. The Slackers are not only the torchbearers of the city's '90s ska renaissance, they have become so good at combining a Catholic vision of classic Jamaican riddims with beatnik attitude (and Hefty bags full of weed) that they almost single-handedly shoved the rest of U.S. ska into irrelevance.
And it's all because of New York. It's all because, while Midwestern rude boys were latching onto ska-infused '80s punk, The Slackers were getting lifted with Roland Alphonso of the Skatalites, hanging out in Latino dive bars with boogaloo 45s on the juke, and rescuing their Tom Waits records from ex-girlfriends' fury. That's how the band ended up making records like the boogaloo-and-Skatalites infused paean to seediness Redlight, and the mod-influenced masterpiece The Question, probably the highpoint of all American ska music. Close My Eyes may not reach those peaks, but it also proves The Slackers to be the only U.S. ska band capable of thriving both artistically and commercially in a culture that sees "ska" as a dirty word on par with "pop-punk."
Close My Eyes finds bassist Marcus Geard's dub addiction taking more control than ever, to great success on tracks like "Lazy Woman" and "Decon Dub" -- ganja-fuelled brilliance that proves that dub a hard riddim fe dead. Traditional ska -- layered vocal harmonies, tight and powerful drums, soul horns -- has no better proponent than the Slack, shining here on "Mommy" and the album's best track, "Axes," in the Heptones/Maytals tradition.
But the Slackers are most themselves when Bronx-born singer/organist/songwriter Vic Ruggeiro is singing his self-deprecating tales of failed relationships, failed efforts, failed lives. The Waitsian carny-crackle of "Old Dog" and the My Aim Is True-era Elvis Costello rocksteady on "Who Knows," the 1963 teen-idol croon of "Close My Eyes" -- in their anomalousness, these are perhaps the most quintessentially "Slackers" tracks Close My Eyes offers.
At its heart, like all Slackers records, Close My Eyes is a concept album about New York City -- the intersection of so many rhythms, cultures and stories. And while it may not be the kind of institution that some of their other albums are, it also points out that the Slackers still have that notorious "it" that has made them almost the only ska band whose songs, styles, attitudes -- and very existence -- matter.